If past history can be any guide, gender-based violence (GBV) tends to increase during humanitarian crises and emergencies. There is currently no cure for the deadly COVID-19 virus which is why imposing a lockdown has been necessary. While doing so may reduce risks of virus transmission the case of Zimbabwe suggests that doing so can increase risks for those vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV). Thus, now more than ever, it is paramount that nations like Zimbabwe work to develop more effective strategies to protect those vulnerable to GBV.
In Zimbabwe, it is often the woman who is more vulnerable to polymorphous forms of abuses. GBV affects all genders, but females are victimized more frequently. In general, the lockdown imposed in Zimbabwe amid the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to reduce criminal activity. Fewer people on the streets means less crime. However, while violence against women in public spaces has inevitably declined, the reverse is true for gender-based violence (GBV) that occurs in private.
Regardless of the conventions, charters, forums, conferences, constitutions, and governmental and non-governmental organisations fighting against violence against women and girls, it continues to be pervasive and its effects are detrimental to the lives of the abused.
The lockdown in Zimbabwe has been in place since March 30. The government has not hinted at when the current lockdown will end. To the dismay of many who are suffering during this period, the lockdown could stretch many more weeks if not months. From a sociological perspective, this uncertainty poses a serious social problem, as these victims or survivors of GBV are now forced to spend days, weeks, and months with their perpetrators.
Living so closely together for an extended period can exacerbate tensions between couples, which increases the likelihood of domestic violence. In such situations women’s bodies often become battlefields, they are susceptible to physical, sexual, emotional/psychological, and economic deprivation, among other forms of violence.Three out of every ten women in Zimbabwe have been affected by GBV during their lifetime according to doctoral research conducted by one of the co-authors of this article. In 2016, there were 8,069 rapes reported to police in Zimbabwe. An average of 22 reported rapes per day is devastating and these numbers have continued to trend upwards. While 2020 numbers are likely to be lower, much of that decline can be attributed to the increased obstacles women face to report to the police due to the lockdown.
GBV and The Lockdown
The Zimbabwe Republic Police has stated that their units are continuing to investigate reports of GBV. They have provided a special emergency phone number during the
lockdown for potential victims.While mobile telephones are widespread in Zimbabwe, not all women have access to one. Indeed mobile phone penetration has dropped in the past two years – a symptom of a worsening economy. The unequal power dynamics that tend to exist in relations between the two domestic actors (that is, husband and wife, or male and female partners), one finds himself or herself in a disadvantaged position if there is only one telecommunications device.
Even if they have the means, women often do not report such cases because of fear and stigma from paternal and maternal relatives. Economic dependence is another factor that continues to give the leeway to the perpetrators to abuse their financially dependent partner without reservation.
The government of Zimbabwe and governments worldwide need to pay more attention to the social problems that are getting exacerbated during the lockdown such as GBV. More support facilities and information should be made available. There are many entities that exist which can support women and prevent GBV, but few people have knowledge of the resources offered. For example, Zimbabwean women can make use of the various agencies and legal structures such as the Zimbabwe Domestic Act of 2007, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Victim Friendly Unit (VFU), the Zimbabwe Constitution, the office of the Ministry of Women, Gender and Community development, and local non-governmental organizations namely the Musasa project, and Padare Enkhundlen Men’s Forum.
Furthermore, there are many other well-respected international institutions that can be catalysts for a new approach to tackling GBV in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government can work more closely with international organizations such as UNICEF, USAID, and World Vision to scale their efforts to protect women and girls.
Running more awareness campaigns disseminating information in homes, schools, and other public spheres would go a long way in changing societal attitudes towards gender-based violence. Efforts should be made to increase solidarity between men and women equipping people with knowledge from a young age on what to do, where to go, and when to report gender-based violence abuses. If relevant stakeholders and players (both government and non-government) could work more closely together to address gender-based violence, the plight of the victimized would be eased.
All the recommendations highlighted above are viable strategies for improving information sharing, which can lead to the reduction in cases of gender based violence against women, not just during the lockdown but, also more broadly.
The lockdown presents a unique opportunity for the government to confront the issue head on with a more captive national audience. Zimbabwe can build a stronger support network for GBV victims. Developing better systems now can have long-term dividends for society going into the future.
Maybe Zengenene is a doctoral researcher in Indonesia on gender based violence.
The article was edited by Tatenda Mabikacheche